Interview with Leon Luo: Being authentic

It’s easy to get lost in the glitz and glamour of what others have. So much so that it usually takes something, or someone, to get you find out who you really are and what you really want. For property owners, that someone might be Leon Luo. 

Associate Director of Free Space Intent, this interior designer has been around the block for 14 years and counting. He went through a Diploma in Architectural Design and National Service before finding his calling and getting a Bachelor of Interior Design. Since then, he’s been designing spaces with purpose and authenticity, and not just with cookie-cutter designs. 

A tough one to catch, we sent in a crack team to tranquillise and drag him in for an interview.

So what was your humble origin story into interior design?  

It wasn’t a practical choice. I just thought it was cool to be an architect – I loved the folios that they carried around (laughs). So, after my O-Levels, I started on my Diploma in Architectural Technology. Of course, there was design but it was mostly architectural drafting.  

When I was done, it was straight into National Service (NS) and I didn’t think would come back into this field. It was too technical and rigid. 

However, after NS, I found that I still loved creating spaces. Space is not something that’s just superficial – it’s something to be experienced. That’s when I got into interior design. Architecture was too massive and large scale for me.  

You got into interior design because you preferred dealing with small details?  

That, and I didn’t have the heart to go through more studying and training in architecture (laughs). So, I got my Bachelor in Interior Design from the Raffles Design Institute. These days, it’s better known as Raffles College of Design and Commerce. 

Had you ever envisioned being an interior designer? 

I was only introduced to the words “interior design” during my studies. Even after NS, I still wasn’t sure what ID was. In fact, at the time, I was working in the night life industry, at the establishment St. James Power Station. 

Working where? 

A night club. It was the time of life when I was young and exploring around the place, and I was worried that, if I did ID, I wouldn’t have anything to fall back on. F&B seemed like a stable industry to be in.  

So I worked at a night club while doing contract work with an interior design firm. That’s when I learned the ropes of interior design. It was then I found that the workflow was quite doable.  

That was quite a big jump! From a night club to interior design! 

The thing about working at a night club, was that I became sensitive to the interior design of these places; the acoustics, the lighting, and all.  

Thinking back, stepping into the old Zouk, I was so overwhelmed by the design. Mezzanines. Curves. Mosaics. It was like a wonderland. That set the benchmark for me. 

How did other clubs compare? 

Going into other clubs after Zouk was disappointing (laughs). I didn’t know it at the time, but Zouk was the top night club then. 

Who is your inspiration in interior design? 

Mies van der Rohe, Antonio Gaudi, and Frank Gehry. Some of their works hit me in a deep way. 

With Mies van der Rohe, it was his Barcelona Pavilion, which was the German Pavilion at the 1929 International Exposition in Barcelona, Spain. Mies designed using only the natural material, and utilizes properties of these materials, such as colours, transparency, and reflectivity. No artificial colour or painting over materials. That inspired me to characterise spaces using only natural colours and properties of materials.  

For Antonio Gaudi, his buildings are very organically shaped. A lot of curves and details – extremely overwhelming in detail (laughs). Despite the fact that I myself am not a “details” person, I really appreciate the silhouettes of his works – organic yet symmetrical. 

What about Frank Gehry? 

He also leans towards the organic side of things. Some of his projects had a literal translation of objects.  

Literal what now?  

Literal translation of objects. You’ve got to Google his project: The Dancing House! He was commissioned to reconstruct a partially destroyed building. So his fixed up just the damaged part and this allowed him to juxtapose a heritage building against a modern one. From afar, the building looks like a dancing couple, hence the name.  

Seems like you gravitate towards the elaborate. 

I’m not a person of minimalism and calm spaces. I appreciate them but they’re not for me. I want something that’s more stimulating and exciting.  

What would you say was your first real foray into interior design?  

I really liked rearranging the furniture in my room (laughs)! 

Was this a frequent thing?  

When I had the luxury of my own space in my teenage years, it was an annual thing. The thing was that my family wasn’t well-to-do enough to have built-in furniture so there was a lot of loose furniture. I would carry my wardrobe and study table, move the bed around, create a cozy corner. It wasn’t all very practical, but I was exploring. 

Did your parents have to say anything about it? 

They hated it especially when I do it at night, bumping things and scraping furniture across the floor (laughs). 

What about your first interior design job? 

I started with small office spaces. I was still doing drafting then. But there was this project and, at the time, my boss was in KL. He told me to go onsite and he would “remote control” me from there (laughs). He was really precise. To this day, I’m really impressed with his ability to give instructions.  

It’s quite a skill to be so precise in giving instructions. 

He was quite the perfectionist. That’s why I couldn’t work with him (laughs). But I did learn a lot from him. 

What would you say your proudest work is? 

Both my previous home and current home. When I work with clients, I feel satisfaction fulfilling the clients needs. But sometimes, there are clients that don’t really know what they want. Having the complete understanding of what can and can’t be done, I’m able to take risks and be happy with the results. I feel more in control. On the other hand, clients always end up worrying about things not working out. 

What I’ve learned is that almost everyone goes into renovations with the big picture. Not many pay attention to the small details which can affect the overall experience of the whole thing.  

The other nice thing about doing your own project is that the thought process is pretty fast – you’re just talking to yourself. You don’t have to translate anything into layman terms to others. The decision-making it much quicker. The whole process is much more enjoyable. 

What’s your design philosophy?  

“A rose is a rose is a rose.” 

That’s deep. So deep. 

Another way of saying it is “It is what it is”. Don’t try to be something else. With different projects and different clients, you can’t just rely on the same approach. What works for one person probably won’t work with another.  

People often cherry-pick ideas from the internet and magazines and just go, “I want that”, without really thinking if it will work with their space. You’ve got to really understand what the challenge is and question certain decisions. For example, a client might say, “I want an open kitchen with a bar counter.” I would question whether they actually envision themselves drinking and sitting there the whole day. They are forced to really think about how they would use the space. That’s how I find out about my clients’ lifestyles, behaviour, and ultimately, their actual needs.  

It is said that no idea ever comes from a vacuum. What inspires your work? Where do your ideas come from? 

Looking at how people live their lives in different environments. In Singapore, we’re very isolated from other forms of living. I need the constant reminder that how we live now may not be how we should be living.  

In places like Bali, Nepal, and Taiwan, I got to visit local homes there and found that homes in Singapore are really luxurious in comparison. I’m not saying with should emulate them 100% but should we learn how they work with their space. 

In Bali, homes have open porches. However, in Singapore, people in landed properties tend to enclose their homes. They close up their balconies and extend their houses up to the fence. 

Kind of a simulation of apartment living. 

In that way people don’t really think about what space means to them. 

For example, I asked a client about what he would do in his room. His response? “I don’t know. Why don’t you decide for me?” 

What is one advice you’d like to give aspiring interior designers? 

Don’t lose your sketching skills in a computer-assisted world. In education, we tend to lose our ability to draw. I wasn’t trained to hand sketch but was encouraged to do so.  But for most, they’d usually end up going straight to 3D modelling. That said, there’s a beauty of translated hand-drawn sketches into models. There’s something very primal about it; true to what you want to express. Everything is too organised on computers. 

Posted on 10 February 2023 

Kenny Tan, 

SIXiDES Editorial Team  


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